NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
If you want to see Part 1, click here.

Away we go:

@toddarcher: I'm not sure where you get he's "always been 10-15 pounds overweight," from other than maybe an eye test. He was not in the best of shape going into the 2013 season. That's why he was "uniquely running mountains" as Jerry Jones called it. I think he was in better shape going into this season in part because of the rehab he had to do for his back surgery. He has never been a physical specimen. He's not going to show up and look like Colin Kaepernick all of a sudden. But I think he knows he has to do a better job with his core at all times of the year in order to make it through a full season.

@toddarcher: I'm guessing you are presuming DeMarco Murray will not be part of the Cowboys in 2015. It was noteworthy that the Cowboys gave Williams $240,000 in a bonus as part of the two-year deal he signed after the season. But that would hardly keep the Cowboys from going after a running back in the draft or a more proven -- if less costly -- veteran in free agency. I think some of the reason why the Cowboys gave Williams that bump in pay was something of a thank you for not leaving when other teams tried to sign him off the practice squad. Williams was smart to stick around, especially if Murray doesn't return. He had a good preseason last summer but was caught in a numbers game when it came to the 53-man roster. I think he could be caught again in that situation depending on how things shake out.

@toddarcher: It's going to be a long haul for Claiborne. He can ask Williams about the rehab because he went through the process when he played for the Arizona Cardinals. From what I've been able to gather, you won't see him on the field in the offseason program and he might not be ready for the early part of training camp. It's more complicated than a comeback from, say, a torn anterior cruciate ligament. There is a lot of stress on the tendon because of the nature of the position. Time is the best healer, but building up strength is a must too. This is a big year for Claiborne for a lot of reasons but for him personally it's a contract year. He's already made plenty of money in his career. Now it's about showing he can have a lasting career.

@toddarcher: Cole Beasley has handled some punts. Lance Dunbar has done some kickoff work. Those guys are restricted free agents, but I'd expect both to be back. Joseph Randle can do it a little bit, buf he might have a larger role as a running back depending on what happens with DeMarco Murray. Terrance Williams has worked on kickoffs in practices. So has J.J. Wilcox. None of those guys are as proficient as Dwayne Harris. I think the Cowboys would like to keep him, but I do wonder if he wants to find a chance to play more as a receiver. At best, he comes back as the fourth receiver for the Cowboys in the 2015 season.

@toddarcher: I like Brett Hundley too, but I don't see the Cowboys taking a quarterback early. Maybe in the middle of the draft or even late they take a guy, but I don't think the Cowboys start the process of finding Romo's successor until they have driven all the way down the road with him as a quarterback. It's a nice theory to draft a guy and have him sit and learn, like Aaron Rodgers did in Green Bay, but the Cowboys need those early picks to play right away to maximize what Romo has left. Taking a quarterback would mean one fewer player the Cowboys can use on defense or on the offensive line or at running back. The Cowboys will find Romo's successor when they no longer have Romo, in my opinion.

IRVING, Texas – You can no longer spell Pro Football Hall of Fame without Charles Haley.

Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones often said his teams of the 1990s would not have been able to spell Super Bowl without the acquisition of Haley from the San Francisco 49ers in 1992.

[+] EnlargeCharles Haley
AP Photo/Denis PoroyCharles Haley holds the NFL record for most Super Bowl victories by a player (5).
On Saturday, Haley was selected to the Hall of Fame on his sixth try. On Aug. 8, he will join 1990s teammates Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders and Larry Allen in enshrinement in Canton, Ohio.

Haley is the only player in NFL history to win five Super Bowls. He was the catalyst for the Cowboys’ victories in Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII and XXX, and he won two Super Bowls with the 49ers. In 12 seasons, Haley played on 10 division championship teams and in six NFC Championship Games in a seven-year span.

Haley played in just 63 games with the Cowboys but was added to the team’s Ring of Honor in 2011. He had 34 sacks with the Cowboys and 100.5 for his career. He was one of the best pass-rushers of his generation.

For the Cowboys, he brought an attitude to a unit that needed some bite. He played hurt and battled back injuries at different times, but he played big at the biggest moments. His 4.5 sacks are a Super Bowl record.

"Charles was the difference maker for us," Jerry Jones said. "He put the 1990s Cowboys over the top.

"He brought a personal spirit and a competitive drive to our organization that changed the course of Cowboys history.

"Intelligence, toughness, will and determination are what Charles means to me. He was a great pass-rusher who could stop the run. He was a guy that teams had to game plan for. He was a defensive playmaker and a game changer -- a complete player, a great teammate who demanded, and expected, excellence from himself and the players around him."

He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year twice (1990, 1994) and was voted to the Pro Bowl five times. He earned All-Pro honors twice, first as an outside linebacker with the Niners and then as a defensive end with the Cowboys.

Haley is the 22nd player, coach or front office member for the Cowboys to earn selection to the Hall of Fame. Allen was the most recent Cowboy to be enshrined, in 2013.
One of the main arguments for Charles Haley to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the same as it has been the past few years: He is the only player to own five Super Bowl rings.

For the Dallas Cowboys, however, he was the missing piece. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said on numerous occasions the Cowboys could not spell Super Bowl without Haley. He arrived in a trade from the San Francisco 49ers in 1992 and the Cowboys won three of the next four Super Bowls. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year twice (1990, '94) and was voted to the Pro Bowl five times. He earned All-Pro honors, first as an outside linebacker with the Niners and as a defensive end with the Cowboys.

With a defensive line that was loaded with talent, Haley did not play every snap, but he played the most important snaps. He brought a nasty demeanor to the Cowboys' defense that made it one of the best groups in the NFL.

The most important part of any résumé should be winning, and Haley won. He has the Super Bowl rings to prove it. His teams won 10 division titles in 12 years and he played in six conference championship games in a seven-year span.

This is the sixth time Haley has been a Hall of Fame finalist. Maybe his wait will finally come to an end on Saturday.
For the first time in the process, Jimmy Johnson will have his name bandied in a room full of Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.

He faces long odds as a first-timer on the ballot. He is one of three coaches up for discussion with Don Coryell and Tony Dungy.

He has more Super Bowl wins than either coach, but Coryell is considered one of the finest offensive minds in NFL history and Dungy had longer success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts.

But what Johnson accomplished with the Dallas Cowboys is worthy of the discussion. He took over in difficult circumstances after Jerry Jones purchased the team in 1989, replacing a legend in Tom Landry and inheriting a roster void of talent. The Cowboys went 1-15 in his first year.

By his fourth season, the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII and were the envy of the league. The Herschel Walker trade changed the Cowboys' route to success. Johnson's knowledge of the college football landscape helped the Cowboys find talent in almost every round of the draft.

In 1993, Johnson helped the Cowboys repeat as Super Bowl champions, something that had happened just six times previously.

There would be no chance for three straight Super Bowl wins. The relationship between Jones and Johnson deteriorated badly, and Johnson was out of the game until returning as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 1996.

He remains the second-winningest coach in Cowboys history with a 44-36 regular-season record. He went 7-1 in the playoffs, but there is a hint of wonder regarding both of those marks had Jones and Johnson been able to work through their issues.

Maybe if they had, Johnson would already be enshrined.

Cowboys position reviews: LBs

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Dekoda Watson, Kyle Wilber, Cam Lawrence, Keith Smith, Will Smith
Free agents: Bruce Carter, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant, James Anderson

A look back: It started out poorly last May when Lee was lost for the season because of a knee injury. He was their best playmaker on defense and the heart of the unit. It just added a question to a defense full of questions.

Throughout the season, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus mixed and matched his guys because of injuries, but as a group the linebackers performed well.

McClain was picked up in a next-to-nothing trade with the Baltimore Ravens and finished second on the team in tackles despite missing three games. Durant was having his best season before it ended because of injury. Carter was maddening at times, but led the Cowboys with five interceptions and played better down the stretch.

Hitchens proved to be a jack of all trades, starting games at all three linebacker spots. He finished with 100 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown. When he was picked, the Cowboys hoped the fourth-rounder could be a serviceable backup to Lee and play special teams. Wilber also had some moments in spot duty as a strongside linebacker.

A look ahead: Lee will be back in 2015, which is good news, but the rest of the group is in a state of flux because of free agency.

If the Cowboys re-sign McClain, then Lee can play the weakside spot. If not, he will return to his middle linebacker spot. It will be difficult to define how much McClain is worth because this was the first time he has had success at this level. The Cowboys got lucky with him and he might realize this is a good spot for him to remain and not just go to the highest bidder in free agency.

Carter and Durant are also interesting studies. Carter has all the athletic ability in the world, but there are stretches of play where you wonder how much he likes football. Durant was lighting it up but has durability concerns. Carter turns 27 next month. Durant turns 30 in September.

Hitchens showed incredible toughness playing through a high ankle sprain late in the season that earned him points throughout the organization. Is he a full-time starter or a fill-in replacement? What’s his best spot? It might be the Will linebacker, but he has some natural middle linebacker skills, too.

A look out: If they are unable to keep their free agents – or unwilling, depending on price level – the Cowboys have to find help.

Without McClain, Carter or Durant, the starters going into the season would be Lee, Hitchens and Wilber and plenty of questions with the depth. The answers would likely be low-cost free agents, such as Durant two years ago, and the draft, such as Hitchens in 2014. They had better be able to run and rally to the ball. That's what made the group successful in 2014.

McClain was a Pro Bowl alternate. With a full offseason of work and another year in the system, his play should improve. Putting him and Lee on the field together could give the Cowboys their best 4-3 linebacker pairing since Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen.

In Eberflus, the Cowboys have a coach who can develop players and teach new pickups on the fly. He might be a coordinator of the future for another team because he knows the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
Tony Romo in the huddleAP Photo/Alex BrandonDallas is looking to avoid another letdown like the one it experienced after its 2009 season.
IRVING, Texas -- In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East, finished 11-5 and won a playoff game before losing in the divisional round to a team from the NFC North.

Wade Phillips' staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Fort Lauderdale sun.

The feeling then was that the Cowboys were close to contending for a Super Bowl, that they would make the jump in 2010 after Tony Romo finally got the playoff monkey off his back.

And then 2010 happened.

The Cowboys finished 6-10, Phillips was fired at the midway point and it started a four-year run without the playoffs.

Yes, Romo broke a collarbone and started only six games, but the Cowboys were 1-5 in his starts.

The jump never came and it put the Cowboys on a re-tooling process -- remember, rebuild is a taboo word at Valley Ranch -- that finally paid off in 2014.

In 2014, the Cowboys won the NFC East, finished 12-4 and won a playoff game before losing in the divisional round to a team from the NFC North.

Jason Garrett's staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Phoenix sun.

The feeling now is that the Cowboys will contend for a Super Bowl in 2015 and make that jump after coming within possibly an overturned Dez Bryant catch of at least making it to the NFC Championship Game.

How do the Cowboys make sure 2015 is not like 2010?

Keep Romo healthy would be a good start, but the makeup of the team is different.

"It's about building," Garrett said. "This is about building, keep building, keep bringing in the right players, keep doing things the right way and building a program. Within that you're building a football team for the 2015 season."

The 2010 Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent. Since the inception of the current system, the Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent in 1993, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2010. The 1993 team was so loaded it didn't need much help in winning consecutive Super Bowls. In the other five years, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs.

Free agency is not the cure all. Teams are never a player away, but the Cowboys can make smart additions in free agency in 2015 to help grow the program.

In 2010, the Cowboys had seven starters 30 or older and three players at least 29. Four of the five starters on the offensive line -- Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode -- were older than 30. Inside linebacker Keith Brooking was 35. Cornerback Terance Newman was 32.

With players under contract for 2015, the Cowboys have just three starters more than 30 years old: Romo, Jason Witten and Jeremy Mincey. Right tackle Doug Free (31) and fullback Tyler Clutts (30) are free agents to-be and could be re-signed.

The Cowboys will welcome linebacker Sean Lee back in 2015 after he missed last season with a knee injury. He turns 29 in July. They could also bring back defensive end Anthony Spencer (31). DeMarcus Lawrence figures to be a starter in 2015. He's turns 23 in April. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens also turns 23 in June.

Linebackers Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter are free agents as well. They will be 26 and 27 when the new season starts.

Looking back at 2010 with the perspective of what happened, that Cowboys team was one that was hanging on, not building.

"I think we're a better football team right now," Romo said. "At the same point, you've got to start over. To me, you just can't try and just recreate what you had. You're going to be a different team in certain areas. Each guy has to commit himself to being a better version of himself than he was the year before. If everybody does that, you'll come back as a whole better team than you were."
IRVING, Texas -- Conventional wisdom holds that the Dallas Cowboys will be better defensively in 2015 mostly because it will be the second year under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

The players will know more about what he does and doesn't want. He will have a better idea about what the players can and cannot do.

But the cast of characters could look vastly different. Of the starters who were in the base defense entering the divisional round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, four are set to be unrestricted free agents: George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain. A fifth, Brandon Carr, could be a salary-cap casualty. Two key backups, Anthony Spencer (unrestricted) and Sterling Moore (restricted), could hit the market at varying levels.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWill the Cowboys be better defensively in Year 2 under coordinator Rod Marinelli? Or will a tougher schedule cause the defense to dip?
The Cowboys will welcome back Sean Lee from a torn ACL, and Morris Claiborne could be back as well from a torn patellar tendon. There should be growth by younger players, like DeMarcus Lawrence, as well as additions through the draft and free agency that could help absorb losses from a defense that fared better than expected.

The Cowboys finished 19th in yards allowed per game (355.1) and 15th in points allowed per game (22) in 2014.

But there is another factor to consider in how much the defense can improve: the level of opponents.

Using yards and points as the indicator, the Cowboys faced just five offenses that finished in the top half of the league in yards and six in the top half in points in 2014. While predicting success based on past results can be flawed, in 2015 the Cowboys will face 13 offenses that finished in the top half in yards and 10 that finished in the top half in points last season.

During his three-year run as coordinator with the Chicago Bears, the numbers in Marinelli’s second year slipped.

In 2010, the Bears were ninth in yards allowed per game (314.3) and fourth in points allowed per game (17.9). In 2011, they were 17th in yards (350.4) and 14th in points (21.3). In 2012, they rebounded in yards allowed (315.6, which was fifth-best) and points allowed (17.3, third-best).

In 2010, they played seven offenses that finished in the top half in yards and eight in the top half in points. In 2011, they faced 10 offenses that finished in the top half in yards and points. In 2012, there were nine offenses in the top half in yards and eight in the top half in points.

The Cowboys’ 2015 schedule features Seattle, Green Bay, Atlanta, New England, New Orleans and Miami out of the division. Those offenses are much better than the units the Cowboys faced in 2014 (San Francisco, Tennessee, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona).

The one constant, however, in a Marinelli defense has been the ability to take the ball away.

In 2010, the Bears were tied for third in turnovers forced with 35. They had 31 in 2011 (tied for fifth), and they led the NFL in takeaways in 2012 with 44.

The Cowboys were able to take it away 31 times in 2014, ranked second in the league.

“There are a lot of different ways to measure your defense and a lot of people get caught up in yards and all the different ways that people use numbers in this game, but taking the ball away impacts the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said when the season ended. “It impacts the game like none other . . . You look at the correlation between takeaways and points scored and it’s a pretty direct correlation and has been for a long time. And points scored relates to winning.”

Cowboys position breakdown: RBs

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams
Free agents: DeMarco Murray, Tyler Clutts

A look back: In a word, Murray was phenomenal. The Cowboys wanted to be a physical team and Murray allowed that to happen. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, setting a single-season franchise record. He also scored 13 touchdowns and opened the season with eight straight 100-yard games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
AP Photo/Scott BoehmDeMarco Murray rushed for an NFL-best 1,845 yards this season, nearly 500 yards better than second-place Le'Veon Bell.
He was helped by three first-round picks on the offensive line, but he also saved his best season for a contract season. And he played in every game for the first time in his career, working through a broken left hand that required surgery.

When the MVP and offensive player of the year awards are announced later this week, Murray should be in the conversation.

Because Murray was so good, the Cowboys did not give Randle or Dunbar much work. Randle, however, managed to average 6.7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns on 51 carries. He had runs of 38, 40 and 65 yards. He ran hard and his pace was different than Murray's and caught defenses off guard. Dunbar did a decent job as a third-down back. His opportunities will be lacking just because of the depth of the Cowboys' offense but he has a good feel for setting up screens.

Clutts didn't have a carry during the season and caught just one pass in the regular season. He added his first touchdown in the playoffs. Williams' comeback from injuries was a good story in training camp and he spent the year on the practice squad.

A look ahead: What happens to Murray will be the story of the Cowboys' offseason. Do the Cowboys pay him a nice reward or do they let him walk as a free agent? Depending on the day, hour, minute that answer can change.

Murray has value to the Cowboys for more than just his ability to run the ball. Finding how to come to a financial agreement with all those things considered will be difficult. It won't be impossible. The Cowboys can certainly afford Murray, Dez Bryant and make plays in free agency with their salary cap. If they don't keep Murray, it will be a decision that they don't want to overpay for a running back.

If that happens, then Randle will get a chance to prove he can be effective as a full-time back. There are those at Valley Ranch who believe he can be a 1,400-yard rusher, but they also acknowledge there is more to the position than running the ball.

Clutts could be brought back at a decent price as well.

A look out: If Murray walks, then the Cowboys would figure to be players in the running back market. While everybody wants to connect the dots between the Cowboys and Adrian Peterson, who remains under contract with the Minnesota Vikings, the cost of business with a running back will be a factor. Peterson won't come at a discount and the Cowboys would have already passed on keeping Murray because they didn't want to fork over a lot of cap space to a running back.

The draft would figure to be the more logical spot. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon looks to be a good fit for what the Cowboys want to do in the running game and with the 27th pick in the draft, they might be in a good spot to get value. There will be other runners that will gain attention between now and May as well.

Remember, Murray was a third-round pick.

The series:
IRVING, Texas -- On Sunday, ESPN and Pro Football Focus unveiled a project to determine how close each team not in Super Bowl XLIX is to playing in the Super Bowl.

The Dallas Cowboys were deemed to be the closest of the 30 teams not in the Super Bowl. PFF graded the Cowboys with four elite players, eight good players, 16 average players and just two bad players.

But close is a relative term. Thirteen of the 30 players rated by PFF are set to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. Teams change. Opponents change. What is true today won’t be true in September when the season begins.

[+] EnlargeBryant/Murray
AP Photo/Brandon WadeRe-signing stars Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray will likely help Dallas be a contender again in 2015.
“I think more so now than ever before,” tight end Jason Witten said, “I think we have an identity in which how we play. And I think that’s something that you feel like you’re building and can build upon. Coach [Jason] Garrett did a great job of kind of enforcing that, kind of laying out that as a blueprint week in, week out since April of what’s going to allow us to have success. Having said that, you start over. No team's the same, and so you have to build that again. I think it was good for us to taste that. It was good for guys to get back there.

“But I don’t think that says next year just roll the ball out and we’re going to do it again. No, you’ve got to do it all over again. I do think we’re good at the right positions that will allow us to have a chance to be successful.”

The Cowboys should have the best offensive line in the NFL with Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin leading the group. Tony Romo had his best season. Dez Bryant, who is set to be a free agent, is among the best wide receivers, as is Witten among the best tight ends.

But then there’s DeMarco Murray. Like Bryant, he is set to be a free agent but there is no guarantee he will be back. If they have to use the franchise tag, it will be on Bryant.

If Murray leaves, the dynamics of the offense are sure to change. Maybe Joseph Randle can replace Murray. Or maybe Adrian Peterson, in fact, ends up a Cowboy. Or Mark Ingram. Or maybe some rookie. Maybe doesn’t fit into an equation.

And this is where "close to the Super Bowl," talk is not necessarily realistic. Thirteen of the 30 Cowboys graded by PFF are free agents, either restricted or unrestricted.

Eight of those 13 players are on the defensive side of the ball, including the leading tackler (Rolando McClain), leading interceptor (Bruce Carter) and second-leading sacker (Henry Melton). Key contributors like Anthony Spencer, Justin Durant and Sterling Moore (restricted) could hit the market to some degree.

When Garrett’s five-year extension was announced shortly after the Cowboys' season ended, he mentioned the word "build" in his opening statement.

“I think teams make mistakes when they say, ‘OK, we’re one player away,’” Garrett said. “I just think you’re continuing to try and build a football team. If we do that, right guys, the right way, that’s what gives us our best chance.”

The quick fix in free agency is sometimes never quick or a fix because the cost is so prohibitive. The Cowboys signed Brandon Carr in 2012 to a five-year, $50 million deal but he has not played to that level and entering his fourth year with the team he is looking at a pay-cut-or-be-cut scenario.

There is also the element of luck. Was it lucky that Tony Romo spun away from J.J. Watt and found Terrance Williams for a touchdown in the overtime win against the Houston Texans? Was it good fortune that the Cowboys were matched up with the dreadful AFC South?

The Cowboys saw a bit of bad luck in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers when Bryant’s catch was overturned.

“Sometimes it’s the way the ball bounces,” Frederick said. “You’re on the sideline and you drop one and it might bounce out of bounds or it might bounce back in and the other team picks it up. There really is a bit of luck in there.”

Each year is a delicate balance of skill, luck, health and chemistry mixed in with a team’s ability.

The 2014 Cowboys were close to contending for the Super Bowl. That doesn’t mean the 2015 Cowboys will be close to competing for Super Bowl L.

“One of the things you learn early on in this game is if we brought back the exact same team, the exact same players, the exact same coaches and we got together on April 20 for the start of the offseason program, we have to start all over again,” Garrett said. “So I do believe that you get yourself to a point and the experiences that we’ve had up to this point are real ones and we can benefit from those experiences, actual game experiences, success and adversities and all that, so we start from that point but we have to get back to work.

“We have to put our socks back on and start from the ground floor and do it all over again. That’s an exciting thing.”

Cowboys position breakdown: QBs

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Dallas Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Dustin Vaughan

A look back: It’s difficult not to call 2014 Romo’s best season. He led the NFL in completion percentage. He led the NFL in quarterback rating and Total QBR. He had the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBy many statistical measures, Tony Romo had the best season of his career.
And he did it coming off major back surgery and not being able to practice fully the entire season. After the second week of the season, Romo did not practice on Wednesdays during full practice weeks in order to build up strength in his legs and core.

It worked perfectly. The one time it didn’t was on Thanksgiving, a shorter week, in a 33-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Romo threw 34 touchdown passes and was intercepted just nine times. Three came in the first half of the season opener. He was more efficient than ever and benefitted from the belief in the running game. But as the running game slowed some late in the season, Romo’s play picked up and the Cowboys closed the regular season with four straight wins. He had 12 touchdowns and one interception. He completed 90 percent of his passes in the win against the Indianapolis Colts. He showed he didn’t need to throw for 300 yards to be successful. He did it just once all season.

And he showed again just how tough he is playing through two transverse process fractures and torn rib cartilage.

Weeden started the 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and completed 18 of 33 passes for 183 yards. He was picked off twice and threw one touchdown pass. The Cardinals made a lot of quarterbacks look pedestrian during the season. Weeden had a good spring, which helped the Cowboys decide to cut Kyle Orton after the veteran skipped the offseason program, organized team activities (OTAs) and mandatory minicamp. He had some good moments in the preseason and played well in relief of Romo against the Washington Redskins.

Is he a long-term answer or a stop-gap backup? The Cowboys will give him a chance to show that either way.

Dustin Vaughan made the roster as an undrafted free agent and was active for just one game. He has a big arm and showed potential in training camp and in the preseason, but his presence would not deter the Cowboys from taking a quarterback in the draft this spring.

A look ahead: For the first time since 2012, Romo will have an offseason to be able to perfect his craft. Back surgeries held him out in 2013 and ’14 and while he was able to play at a high level, he has long believed his improvement came in the spring when he tinkered with different things.

Romo turns 35 in April, but the Cowboys believe he is different than most 35-year-old quarterbacks because he didn’t play the first three years of his career. Maybe the back surgeries or hits he has taken eat up some of that clock. But this isn’t about a five-year plan with the Cowboys. There is no reason to think Romo’s about to hit a steep decline in play.

Mentally, he is at his best. Physically, he can still get it done and he has a top offensive line that is a huge benefit.

He is set to count $27.773 million against the cap, which is an astounding number but one that the Cowboys could keep him at with the kind of salary-cap shape they are in. By restructuring his deal, they would only add to how much he will count against the cap in the future.

Weeden is signed through 2015. The Cowboys will have Vaughan's rights through 2017.

A look out: Every spring we wonder if this is the year the Cowboys draft Romo’s successor. The guess now is no, they won’t. Whenever the Cowboys decide to move on from Romo or Romo moves on from the Cowboys, then they will find his successor. The thought of grooming quarterbacks these days seems quaint, like a glass of lemonade on a hot day. Teams mostly draft a guy early and play him.

They could look for a more veteran backup than Weeden, but there’s not a lot available and they still like Weeden’s arm and potential. The same goes with Vaughan.
IRVING, Texas -- According to ESPN Stats & Information, the highest salary-cap figure in the NFL since 2000 has been the $24,752,941 the Washington Redskins heaped on defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in 2010.

The Dallas Cowboys could very well break that mark with quarterback Tony Romo in 2015.

Romo is set to count $27.773 million against the cap because of a $17 million base salary and a proration of $10.773 million from his signing bonus in 2013 and restructure in 2014.

At the Senior Bowl last week, Executive Vice President Stephen Jones told reporters it is not a given the Cowboys will restructure Romo’s deal.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesTony Romo will cost the Cowboys almost $28 million in salary cap space next year.
“Obviously you don’t like to mortgage your future if you can help it,” Jones said. “We started making the move toward being a younger team and going a different direction in terms of pushing money out, so we’d prefer not to do that, but at the same time every situation has ramifications and you have to make tough decisions sometimes. I don’t think there’s an exact science, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it or not do it.’”

The Cowboys don’t want to do it and they probably don’t have to do it either even when it comes to re-signing Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray to long-term deals or even putting the franchise tag (or transition tag) on either player and signing one to a long-term deal.

They can still create about $31 million in space with other moves and have enough to be viable players in free agency, re-sign their key guys and get all of their draft picks signed.

(Let’s get a misnomer out of the way: a restructure is not a re-do. A restructure is simply an accounting tool where the player still gets the same money it’s just counted differently against the cap. A re-do is a player taking less money. And Romo will not be taking less money, nor should he be asked to take less money.)

Last year the Cowboys turned $12.5 million of Romo’s $13.5 million base salary into signing bonus as part of a restructure. It helped the Cowboys get under the cap last year. They don’t need that help this March.

Romo turns 35 in April. The Cowboys have to believe he has three years left at a high level. If they can withstand such an astronomical cap figure, they should do it. Too often in the past they kept kicking the salary-cap can down the road.

The most common practice in restructuring a player’s deal is to turn the difference between his salary and the league minimum into signing bonus and prorate it five years. The Cowboys like round numbers, to a degree, in their capology and could move Romo’s base to $1 million and turn the remaining $16 million into a signing bonus.

Just like that, they create $12.8 million in space against the cap.

They also eat up $3.2 million more in cap space from 2016-2019 by doing so. Romo’s cap numbers in 2016-19 would jump to $20.835 million, $24.7 million, $25.2 million and $23.7 million.

But the cap will be going up in the future, so what’s the big deal? Sure. And Romo’s base salary in 2016 is just $8.5 million (just?). It might be better to turn the restructure trick in 2016 when you don’t have to prorate as much of the salary and don’t inflate the future cap figures too much.

But there is also this to consider when examining Romo’s $27.773 million cap figure in 2015.

The Cowboys can nibble away at that figure by restructuring it as many times as they want in the coming months, taking a bit here and there as they see fit instead of doing the maximum at the start of the league year and perhaps leaving themselves a bit more compromised in the future.

But go back to Jones words last week: The Cowboys don’t have to do it.

They should be more than willing to erase Haynesworth’s record.
IRVING, Texas -- Throughout the years, we have heard countless teammates rave about Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

This past season, we heard Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray talk about Witten’s impact on them as players and men. We heard Tony Romo say Witten might be the best Cowboy of all time. Jason Garrett called Witten the best tight end in football for the past decade.

On Thursday, I pulled aside New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a Pro Bowl practice and asked about Witten.

During the practice, Witten, who was added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Denver’s Julius Thomas, took the first-team snaps over Graham. I wondered if it was Graham deferring to a tight end who will be playing in his 10th Pro Bowl.

"The first thing I told him is, you know, he’s my idol and he always has been," Graham said. "I try to emulate everything he does on the field and off the field. Not only does he do everything right on the field, and he’s been consistent for the past forever, but he does so much in his community. So I’ve tried to emulate myself just like him as a man, just because of the type of individual he is."

Graham and Witten have played in Pro Bowls before. They share the same agent, Jimmy Sexton. How they play tight end is different. Graham is more athletic, almost a wide receiver playing the position. Witten is the more traditional tight end.

"He is what I know I will be or what I try to be each and every year," Graham said. "And I strive to be the type of tight end that he is."

Tony Romo: 'I have to be better'

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
IRVING, Texas -- Throughout the Dallas Cowboys’ season, Tony Romo was often asked to reflect on what he was able to do.

He never took a big picture view, saying the timing wasn’t right, that the focus was on that week’s opponent or that day’s practice.

The end of Dallas' season wasn't even two weeks old, and as he stood outside one of the team buses after a Pro Bowl practice in Glendale, Arizona, Romo’s big picture view wasn’t about his season. He did not discuss his comeback from major back surgery to lead the NFL in passer rating, Total QBR and completion percentage. He didn’t go on about the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesAfter throwing 34 touchdowns in 2014, Tony Romo is already looking forward to how he can improve his game next season.
 He didn’t thumb his nose at critics who wondered if he would ever rid himself of mistakes in big games or those who scoffed when he said in training camp his best football was ahead of him.

“Ultimately, I feel like we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do so it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Romo said. “I think you just figure out how you have to be better. I have to be better. Our team has to be better. And you have to go attack this thing with everything we got.”

On Tuesday night, sitting in the lobby at the Arizona Biltmore, Romo watched his fellow Pro Bowlers walk by. He was struck at how different it felt from his earlier trips. In his first Pro Bowl in 2006, he was the unknown kid who led the Cowboys to the playoffs. He had the world in front of him.

Now in his fourth Pro Bowl and five years removed from his most recent trip to the all-star game, his life has changed. He turns 35 in April. He is married and has two sons. He knows these moments don’t last forever.

The world may still be in front of him, but his view of it has changed.

“You want to keep constantly trying to figure out new ways to improve,” Romo said. “You’re never satisfied. Last year is not a satisfying feeling. If anything, it makes you more hungry to be better going forward so you have an opportunity to achieve all your goals. Ultimately we didn’t get that done and that just never sits well. I’m a firm believer that you have to start over and go do everything you did to be better the next season. You can’t just rest on anything you’ve done. It just doesn’t work that way.”

“I’m going to have to start over, tear it all down and figure out what I did well and work on the things I didn’t do as well and then go try and continue to perfect your craft to get to your highest level.”’

How does he improve on 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions? On completing 69.9 percent of his passes? On 8.5 yards per attempt?

The secret is in the dirt. It’s an old Ben Hogan saying and one Romo references often. It’s on the practice field or in the meeting room. It’s studying the tiniest of details from where he places his ring finger on the ball to how he slightly adjusts where he points his lead foot.

“If you’re not improving and getting better from year to year, if you don’t think you can try to figure out new ways to perfect your craft, I don’t understand how you can help your football team,” Romo said. “You’re going in the wrong direction, to me, if you don’t. You’ve got to figure out how you can be a better player. Each guy has to do that a little different and just think if our team takes that approach, we have a chance to be better.”

For the first time since 2012, Romo will be able to work on his craft in the offseason. In 2013, he had surgery to remove a cyst from his back and did not take part in organized team activities and the minicamp. In 2014, he was coming back from the discectomy that prevented him from playing in the winner-take-all finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It limited him in training camp. He never practiced more than two straight days. It limited him early in the season until the Cowboys’ athletic training staff formulated the ‘Romo Wednesday,’ in which he worked on his strength in his core and legs.

“It’s going to be a much better offseason on building in areas that I haven’t been able to in a couple of years,” Romo said. “I’ll always have to maintain a little bit of what I’ve been doing for my back. Strengthening the areas there, that’s the most important thing. I think what I’ve found is that you’ve got to attack the offseason, and you can do it in many different forms. I think it’ll be nice to attack some area that I haven’t been able to.”

He doesn’t want to say what areas he will attack. He prefers to keep that secret in the dirt to himself. He said the tear-down process will start in the middle of February.

“Right now you’re just trying to enjoy the Pro Bowl and family and things like that,” Romo said.

When the bus returned to the Biltmore, he was going to sit by the pool and relax with his family and teammates. The sun was out and everything was bright.

“Next season is a whole new season and we’ve got to tear it down and start all over again,” Romo said. “You’re guaranteed nothing. That’s the only way to be successful year to year. I think our team has an opportunity with a lot of the right people in place, and I’m excited about the challenge and excited about the ability to work and get after it.”
PHOENIX -- There is a theory going around about the Dallas Cowboys and their running game that sounded a lot like the theory around the team in the 1990s: You can get just about any running back to have success behind that offensive line.

Emmitt Smith became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with help from an offensive line that had too many Pro Bowlers to count. DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing in 2014 with 1,845 yards, breaking Smith’s franchise record for yards in a season, with three Pro Bowlers blocking for him.

Jason Witten does not subscribe to that theory. At all.

“We’ve got good running backs,” he said. “Joe Randle took advantage of every opportunity he got. I think [Lance] Dunbar’s got a great future ahead of him. Obviously the O-line, but I think it would be silly to not give him the credit for what he did. It’s not easy to do that and I think Coach [Jason] Garrett said it a few weeks back that he created a mindset for our team and that’s not easy to do. He deserves a lot of that credit, DeMarco does, and so that’s why you want a guy like that back because he stands for everything you want in your football team.”

But the financials will play a part in Murray’s future. The Cowboys can afford to pay him whatever they want. It will be a question of if they want to pay him big money before the free-agent market opens.

Witten will do everything he can to make sure Murray stays. The two developed a tighter relationship in 2014 as workout partners in the offseason.

“You don’t invest that time just for one year,” Witten said. “You’re really thinking big picture. But he deserves it. He’s worked hard. He has a lot of good things around him and he’s the first to give others credit. You want him to have as much success as he can, but of course you want him on your team. … You want to see him maximize that but there’s no question that I hope he’s thinking about guys like me when he’s going through that decision. Not that he owes us anything because he doesn’t, but that he wants to be a part of that. But you know it’s a business, too.”
PHOENIX – A year ago at this time, Zack Martin was in Mobile, Alabama, preparing for the Senior Bowl, unsure of his football future.

This week he is at the posh Arizona Biltmore preparing for his first of what should be many Pro Bowl appearances.

“There was a lot going on last year,” Martin said. “Obviously, more of trying to do as much as you can to get noticed and get picked. This year it’s a little more relaxing, just kind of here for a week to enjoy everyone’s company and enjoy yourself playing.”

As Martin was walking to his room Tuesday, Joe Staley introduced himself to the Cowboys rookie.

“Zack Martin, the greatest guard in the history of guards,” Staley said.

Or not.

“He was joking,” Martin said.

Staley played for Brian Kelly at Central Michigan. Martin played for Kelly at Notre Dame. That Martin earned that kind of praise -- joking or not -- from Staley speaks to Martin's reputation across the league. In addition to the Pro Bowl, he was named All-Pro, the first Cowboys rookie to be so honored since 1969.

“I didn’t really expect this coming in, but obviously I kinda hit the jackpot with the situation I came into with great coaches and even better players to play next to,” Martin said, “Really got lucky with that.”

The Cowboys got lucky. While most of the draft-day talk centered around Johnny Manziel, the Cowboys would have selected linebacker Ryan Shazier if the Pittsburgh Steelers hadn’t taken him with the 15th overall pick.

Martin was a Day 1 starter and didn’t miss a game or a snap. Coaches like to say a player’s biggest improvement comes between his rookie year and second season.

“Honestly, I have no idea how he could improve that much,” center Travis Frederick said. “My level of improvement was a lot, and it just had to do with learning the game, but he’s already at such a high level … that if he continues to improve at the level he did this year, there really is no ceiling for him.”

Martin said he needs to get stronger. He said he can improve on the big things as well as the fine details.

He doesn’t consider himself to be the greatest guard in the history of guards.

“Just go in and do what I’ve always done,” Martin said. “I’ve always said our group takes care of that because we hold ourselves to such a high standard that that group won’t allow anything else but that.”